With the departure of last year's seniors, the incoming of a new head coach, and a complete shake-up on the offensive side of the ball, this year's Montana Grizzlies will be looking quite different to Griz fans.
But even with all the change, one area that should look familiar will be returning coordinator Ty Gregorak's defense, where some Griz players are hoping to step up with positions up for grabs.
Now in his fourth year, that's where Griz defensive back JR Nelson finds himself, and on a smoky August afternoon, Nelson says he's ready to be a playmaker in Montana's secondary.
After tallying 17 total tackles, and receiving more playing time last season, the 6-oot-2 defensive back from Hacienda Heights, California is expected to start at Montana's second corner position across from senior Nate Harris.
Nelson took some time before practice to talk about Montana's upcoming contest against North Dakota State and how he feels about this year's Grizzly defense:
Q: The Griz are kicking off the season with a big game at home against North Dakota State. How are you feeling going into the season and getting out of fall camp?
A: I'm pumped, just really excited. We've been working hard, especially in fall camp, and seeing the offense progress and even the defense progress. There were some little things we had to work on, but toward the end, we looked like where we wanted to get to.
Q: You're entering your redshirt junior season and will be getting more playing time in the secondary. What's going through your mind now that you're up?
A: It's been a long time coming, but I've always worked hard and tried to learn from the guys. I still talk to Chief (former Griz DB Anthony Goodwin). I still talk to Josh (Dennard). They're a big part of my life still. When they were here playing, I was just trying to pick up on what I could do, so now that it's my turn, I'm ready to go.
Q: You've spent your entire career up until this season under former Griz head coach Mick Delaney and now the show is being running by Coach Bob Stitt. What's the difference you've seen between their coaching styles?
A: Two totally different guys that just come from two totally different backgrounds. What Coach Stitt brings to the table is just a new feel and a new attitude. Especially with the offense, now it's just more fast-paced. Both great guys that care about the team and how we are, but one is 70 and the other is in his 50's (laughs).
Q: Even with the change in leadership, you've still got some continuity in your department with defensive coordinator Ty Gregorak staying on. How has that continuity helped the defense?
A: Our defense really hasn't changed. We've had Coach JB (Hall Jr.) and Coach (Jason) Semore change of a little bit of our technique stuff that we did. Our defense though is solid. We haven't missed a beat at all.
Q: Outside of the secondary, there's been some continuity in the defense with the linebacker unit as well. Who has stuck out to you during camp and someone you think could have a big season?
A: One of the linebackers who proved a lot to me was (redshirt freshman) Josh Buss. He came out here, a younger cat, but he came out here trying to ball and learn. He's going to be good for the future.
Q: With the season ahead of you, what are some games you're personally looking forward to?
A: The first four games are going to be the tough ones. I'm excited to go up against some teams like Eastern Washington and Montana State where they throw the ball. NDSU, they'll throw a little bit, and Cal Poly, they'll throw a little bit, but they really just try to control the clock and run the ball. I'm excited to go up against the teams who think they can throw against us.
Q: Having seen North Dakota State on the road loss last year, how much will that experience help you out playing in Washington-Grizzly Stadium?
A: Last season we got a good feel for what they like to do, but we've made some adjustments. I feel like we're ready for what they have to throw at us. We have a better game plan. They aren't the most athletic guys, but they play as a team and have really good coaches. Coming here to our stadium, it's a different atmosphere. They think they know what's going to hit them, but they don't know. ... I can't wait for them to come in here.
Q: They revealed the new uniforms this week. Which ones are you looking forward to sporting this season?
A: The charcoal, that's tight, but I can't wait for the throwbacks. Those are so cool. I've never really worn orange or anything like that, but I'm so hyped for that one.
Q: How do you feel about playing in the smoke?
A: Well I'm from California so you kind of grow up and it's kind of polluted, but it's not as bad as this right now. You definitely get used to it. First couple of days were real rough, but if it's like this during the game, we'll be ready.
Q: How was your summer this year? Get to do any more exploring around Montana?
A: I went to Lynden, Washington, that's where my fiancé is from, so I went and visited out there for about a week, but I've been out here (in Missoula) just working hard. I don't ever go back home. I just stay here and try to get my mind right for the season.
Q: Last time we talked you admitted you were a pretty big fan of the Seahawks. What are you expecting from them this season?
A: I don't get to watch as much as I actually want to, but man I think the Seahawks are going to be good this year. They got some offseason dogs like Jimmy Graham and Tyler Lockett out of the draft. They got that defense, and honestly, I think our defense is a lot like Seattle. We got a loud stadium, the defense is always good, and we even got a few guys out here that look like certain dudes. Manu (Rasmussen) looks like Earl Thomas and J-Whit (Justin Whitted) could be Kam. Myself, I'm Richard Sherman, so we got the little squad going on.
Q: You have a bit of a martial arts background with your black belt Taekwondo. What are some of your favorite martial arts-based flicks?
A: When I was little I used to watch "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" all the time with Chow Yun Fat. Man, he was also in Bulletproof Monk. I used to watch a lot of Jet Li movies, but really anything kung-fu or where they're fighting without guns, I'm into it. Just love it.
Q: Last time we talked you also said you were a pretty big fan of video games. What've you been playing lately?
A: Well lately I've been playing a whole lot of Mortal Kombat, a lot of Call of Duty, but I'm big right now on Star Wars Battlefront. That comes out November 17 and once that comes out, you guys aren't going to see me anymore (laughs).
Q: What are your personal goals for this season?
A: Just to make an impact. I've got two years left and I've got a real shot now. I'm just trying to go out there, play hard, and make plays. I'm trying to get some picks. I want to get us back to when people used to fear us. That's what I want.